The Vikings were not sharp on Sunday afternoon in Detroit and seemed to lack urgency during much of the game in a 34-23 loss to the Lions. The Vikings had opportunities, but simply failed to take advantage of them offensively while mistakes proved costly. Defensively, the Vikings gave and just kept on giving all afternoon while failing to generate any takeaways. Offensively run blocking was a major issue all afternoon. And on special teams the Vikings allowed the Lions a big gain on a fake punt that was key in a Lions’ touchdown drive.
Overall, the Vikings’ performance- outside of their top players- was marked by a lack of urgency, sharpness, and a degree of effort for much of the game.
Prior to the start of the game, the Vikings announced that Christian Darrisaw, Harrison Smith, and Garrett Bradbury would not play. They were all listed as questionable. Kevin O’Connell said after the game that they were all held out because they wanted to be smart with guys that have been a little banged up.
The implication was that they could have played, if necessary, but they decided to hold them out to make sure the injuries did not linger into the postseason. Their absence was noticeable in both the Vikings run game and in coverage- two of the weakest parts of the Vikings game against the Lions. Beyond that, it also looked like some backups were getting more reps on defense as well. Brian Asamoah was getting more reps at linebacker. Jordan Hicks had an injured toe and had fewer snaps during the game which may have been why. Duke Shelley got half the reps at cornerback despite the return of Cam Dantzler. There also looked to be a fair amount of rotation on the defensive line. Esezi Otomewo was activated for the game and got some reps. Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter played 10-15% fewer snaps than usual.
So, there appeared to be some load management that was part of the equation in the Vikings’ loss to the Lions on Sunday. And maybe that sent the wrong message to some players on the field on Sunday.
Big Picture Thinking
Going into the Lions game, the Vikings had a 99% chance of winning the NFC North and with a loss they’d still had a 99% chance of winning the division. They also had a two-game lead over the 49ers for the second seed in the NFC playoff tournament. They also have the easiest remaining schedule in the league. These are luxuries not many teams have at this point in the season.
At the same time, the goal for the Vikings is to get to the playoffs as healthy as possible.
Given all that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Kevin O’Connell and the sports performance training staff were geared a little more toward making sure their players were as healthy as possible rather than risk pushing them a bit to win a relatively meaningless game near the end of the regular season. Especially if it meant a player or two may not be available or at their best in the postseason. Nobody remembers what the Rams regular season was last season- they just remember they won the Super Bowl.
But the other goal for Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings is to enter the playoffs playing their best football. Or at least prepared and ready to play their best throughout the postseason. And on this score, there is still more work to do. At this point, it’s difficult to see how the Vikings make it past the divisional round of the playoffs, given their level of performance.
The Vikings defensive scheme is designed around a bend, don’t break philosophy. The idea is to take away big plays by playing two deep safeties, or appearing to, and force the opposing offense to convert a lot of third downs while also giving the defense a chance to generate big plays of their own- like turnovers. It’s a scheme that depends upon the defensive line to generate pressure and stop the run. It’s not a scheme that prioritizes limiting yards allowed.
The problem is that the defense has been giving up a few big plays every game of late, which is compromising the basic goal of the scheme. And they haven’t been as good at generating those big plays defensively. Part of the problem is blown assignments or not communicating effectively. Part of the problem (with Harrison Smith out) is revealing too early pre-snap what the coverage is. Part of the problem is playing too loose or passive in coverage. And part of the problem is the pass rush can be slow to arrive many times.
The result is a defense that is now dead last in the league in yards allowed. It’s also a defense that is tied for last in team pass rush win rate. And it is a defense that is last in passing yards allowed and net yards per pass attempt allowed.
KOC and Others Discuss Solutions
Asked about their defensive woes, Kevin O’Connell didn’t seem overly concerned about these issues, but continued to say that everything is on the table except giving someone other than Ed Donatell the play calling duties. O’Connell mentioned possibly getting more aggressive in the pass rush, doing some self-scouting when it comes to the looks they give opponents, and perhaps changing some things up. But he also discussed the need to execute better.
Ed Donatell was asked extensively about improving the defense in his weekly presser, and his message was mainly that they needed to execute better. He defended the scheme (Vic Fangio’s scheme is well proven), but also acknowledged they’ve been dealing with injuries in the secondary and with Za’Darius Smith. He downplayed the need for any extensive scheme changes and said they would work through their issues. He mentioned tighter coverage as a key area for improvement but was more vague about ways to improve the pass rush.
Patrick Peterson and Harrison Phillips also were asked the same question, and again didn’t seem overly concerned. Peterson talked about execution and communication, but also mentioned that it’s a long season and they’ve only lost three games. He said this is a time to accumulate reps and use their experience in different situations to help prepare them for those situations in the playoffs. He said that the goal for them now is to groom themselves to be prime for the playoffs. He also told players that now is the time to develop that killer instinct and he expected to see some of that against Indianapolis on Saturday. Harrison Phillips dismissed the yards allowed issue and said they focus on turnover margin, including fourth down stops as turnovers, as the key driver of winning games.
Each of those comments provides a bit of insight into the thinking defensively, and what their approach and focus will be going forward. It will be interesting to see what KOC and Ed Donatell are willing to put on tape in terms of schematic changes at this point in the season, which would help prepare opposing playoff teams next month.
Preseason for the Postseason
And so with the Vikings in firm control of the division race and an advantage in the race for the second seed, and with the third seed being basically the worst-case scenario, there is a bit of pre-season mentality as the Vikings prepare for the postseason. Pre-season mentality in terms of wanting to ramp up execution while avoiding injuries.
The Vikings’ main competitors in the NFC playoffs- Dallas, San Francisco, and Philadelphia- have all suffered some key injuries to starters recently which will impact them in the postseason. The Vikings’ ability to stay healthier than those competitors could influence how deep into the postseason they’re able to get.
At the same time, the Vikings may also want to keep any newly installed wrinkles out of public view as much as possible as they prepare for the playoffs, which would only help their playoff opponents prepare for them.
The Vikings may also end up playing teams they’ve already played this season every step of the way. Kevin O’Connell was just down that road in January. The first three games of the playoffs for the Rams last season were against teams they’d played at least once during the regular season. Two of those games were 17+ point losses as well.
Making the Most of the Vikings’ Postseason Opportunity
Looking back on the Vikings’ regular season so far, the things that jump out the most are the poor rankings relative to their 10-3 record. They’re historically low in DVOA and point differential for teams with that record. They’ve given up the most yards of any team in the league.
But in ten of those thirteen games, they’ve had an uncanny ability to come up with big plays when they’ve needed them and have done a great job in fourth quarter comebacks, first drive success, and preserving leads to win close games- all nine of them.
And for DVOA people, here’s a DVOA stat worth mentioning: the Vikings have compiled their 10-3 record with the third most difficult schedule by DVOA. By contrast, the Eagles, 49ers, and Cowboys have compiled their records with the 30th, 29th, and 28th most difficult schedules by DVOA.
The Vikings strength of schedule (winning % of teams they’ve played) and strength of victory (winning % of teams they’ve beat) are both highest among all playoff-likely teams except the Bills.
The Vikings also have the 5th best overall team PFF grade after 14 weeks. That says something about the quality of the breadth of their roster.
Having said that, it’s fair to say that at their best, the Eagles, Cowboys and 49ers have better rosters than the Vikings in the NFC. Whether or not they’ll be at their best in the postseason is, of course, problematic- and out of the Vikings’ control.
What the Vikings can control (to some extent) is how healthy and rested their players are going into the postseason, and how prepared they are for each playoff game. Teams with inferior rosters can beat teams with better rosters when they’re healthier, better prepared and have a better game plan.
With one more win, the Vikings clinch the NFC North and can’t do worse than the third seed. If that win were to come against the Colts on Saturday, that means the last three games of the season are about having the second or third seed. The Vikings getting the first seed at this point isn’t realistic. The Eagles would have to lose to the Cowboys and two of the following teams: the Bears, Saints and/or Giants. The Cowboys would then also have to lose to either the Titans, Commanders, or Jaguars on the road.
The current third seed 49ers travel to Seattle on a short week for a tough Thursday night division game without Deebo Samuel and then host the Commanders whose only loss since week six was a narrow one to the Vikings. Their last two games are easier ones at the Raiders and hosting the Cardinals. Should the 49ers lose to the Seahawks and Commanders, and the Vikings beat the Colts and Giants, the Vikings would secure the second seed with two games to play. That would leave them with two meaningless road games against the Packers and Bears to end the season- and no reason to play their starters in either game.
Ramp Up Execution
The biggest area for improvement as the Vikings prepare for the playoffs is pass defense. There has been a bit of an uproar over the defense following the loss to the Lions, but the reality is that the Vikings’ pass defense has been at or near the bottom of the league in both passing yards and yards per pass attempt allowed since week two.
I did a piece a couple weeks ago on what’s ailing the Vikings’ defense and some potential fixes, and those are all still valid. Clearly getting Cam Dantzler back healthy will help solidify the other outside cornerback position, which has been in flux with backups playing for the last month or more. Dantzler returned from IR and played against the Lions, but only half the snaps and wasn’t 100%. He hasn’t practiced so far this week with an illness and has been rehabbing from an ankle injury.
Harrison Smith missed the Lions game as well which didn’t help with the Vikings’ ability to disguise coverage pre-snap and in communication at times as well.
The Vikings are not going to suddenly become one of the best pass defense teams in the league after struggling all season, but there are a couple execution issues that are fixable with current personnel and are doable between now and the playoffs.
The first is to eliminate the blown coverages and communication issues that result in them. Cleaning up communication issues and missed assignments will go a long way in preventing the easy over-the-top pass plays that have been allowed over the past several weeks. Not giving up those big plays would shave roughly 100 yards off the Vikings passing yards allowed per game in recent weeks and allow them to be competitive with all the top playoff teams in that regard. This should be the main focus in working to improve the secondary.
The second is to work on tightening coverage windows away from Patrick Peterson.
Patrick Peterson has the lowest target rate of any cornerback in the league with over 250 coverage snaps according to PFF. It’s been clear since the Bills game that opposing offenses have game planned targeting defensive backs other than Peterson with good success over the last month and the Vikings should implement a plan to counter that. Whether or not they show it before the playoffs is another issue, but they should be working on it in practice.
Beyond that, having some stability at the other outside cornerback position will be helpful in working to tighten up coverage on that side of the field. But working on coverage depth at all positions, getting hands up on the defensive line or collapsing the pocket, and tackling well will all help make the passing offense’s job more difficult while limiting damage- even with quick hit type passing plays where the pass rush can’t get home before the ball is out. It also helps create the conditions for turnovers, whether tipped ball, tight coverage or potential QB pressure forcing an errant throw.
The Vikings also play zone coverage 85% of the time- 2nd highest percentage in the league. That may suit their personnel best, but mixing in some man coverage with the right matchups could cause QBs to hold the ball a bit longer and allow the pass rush to get home.
But trying to do too much in terms of scheme adjustments could lead to setbacks. The main thing is to tighten up the scheme they’re playing and get some key players back and healthy.
Offense Can Improve Execution Too
On the offensive side, getting more success from players other than Justin Jefferson would be a big plus heading into the playoffs. At some point an opposing defense will be able to slow down Justin Jefferson. When that happens, the Vikings need to pivot to other players successfully. Whether that’s Dalvin Cook, TJ Hockenson, or other wide receivers, there needs to be other ways for the Vikings to move the ball effectively and score.
The Vikings run game was a no show against Detroit last weekend, but that was in part due to two backups in the lineup. All five starting offensive lineman for the Vikings are good run blockers. The Vikings could use to leverage that better for more balance and easier third down conversions.
Getting and Staying Healthy
For the Vikings, they can help make up for any roster deficit against top teams by being healthier than they are. Clinching the NFC North on Saturday will be helpful. If that happens, the Vikings will have to make some decisions in terms of whether the second seed is important enough to risk starters through the end of the season or not. There may be value in giving select backups more snaps as well.
Ultimately, there will likely be a decision whether or not to rest starters week 18, and potentially beforehand in some cases. A lot of factors will go into that, including what the 49ers do in their remaining games.
The Vikings will face some choices going forward in terms of how to manage the rest of the regular season. At the same time, they need to ramp up execution and also potentially make some adjustments, while potentially giving some backups some reps to see what they can do.
I expect all hands on deck against the Colts on Saturday, as wrapping up the division is a key goal to check off. I would expect all hands on deck against the Giants as well. Beyond that, on the road against the Packers and Bears, the Vikings could be more cautious, depending on how they stand vs. the 49ers for the second seed at that point. There’s also a chance that the Packers and/or Bears choose to look at backups rather than risk a late season injury when both are out or all but out of the playoff picture.
For the Vikings, the next two games may be the most important in ramping up execution, while the last two may be more a question of making sure players that are banged up get a chance to get healthy, and limiting injury exposure to other players like Justin Jefferson.
Ideally the Vikings can navigate to maintain the second seed while also ramping things up and getting players healthy and ready for the playoffs. Having home field advantage is important, but so too is being healthy and rested for a tough slate in the playoffs however which way it works out. If the Vikings win their first playoff game, the second one will likely be against the 49ers, assuming they win their first playoff game as well. The Cowboys seem likely to play the Eagles in the divisional round, assuming they beat the Bucs and that Tampa wins its division. If the Vikings can survive to the conference championship, it would either be the Cowboys at home or the Eagles on the road, and trying to redeem their one of their two worst losses of the season.
But first it’s the Colts and trying to clinch the division title at home on Saturday.
Which would you prefer:
This poll is closed
Vikings run the table, finish with the second seed, but no rest for starters, potentially missing a key player or two for the first playoff game or longer; or
Vikings rest starters week 18 and have all key starters entering the postseason, but have the third seed.